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Japan Inc. grapples with 'right to disconnect' amid telework-fueled boost in work texts

This Dec. 6, 2021 photo taken at lafool Inc. in Tokyo's Chuo Ward shows a computer screen with a set of rules, including one urging employees to contact colleagues while being considerate of their working hours. (Mainichi/Yukako Ono)

TOKYO -- Teleworking practices have spread amid the coronavirus pandemic while communications tools have grown more convenient, and many people may have experienced being fed up of work-related calls and emails while relaxing at home outside working hours. Recently, the right to disconnect, which allows employees to disengage from work, has been gathering attention.

    "It is currently outside your working hours. Please work overtime after obtaining your supervisor's consent," reads the message appearing on employees' computer screens at Tokyo-based firm lafool Inc., which develops health management tools for companies, once the clock strikes 10 p.m. Its efforts to alert employees began in April 2021 after the introduction of work-at-home practices amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The company, where all employees worked at the office prior to the pandemic, said its employees complained of increased stress once teleworking was introduced in April 2020.

    Tomohiro Miyauchi, 34, lafool's human resources manager, explained, "I thought employees' satisfaction would rise because they get to save time from commuting, but a difference in working rhythms appeared, and more people have been stressed. The alert has the effect of having workers scale down their own workload and refrain from contacting colleagues by noticing they are off duty."

    When employees were obliged to go to the office, it was easy to be aware of when coworkers clocked out and to then refrain from calling and emailing people who had already left. But with the shift to teleworking, the company said it saw increasing cases of employees, unaware of each other's working hours, accidentally contacting people who had already ended work. A new chat tool implemented to facilitate teleworking ended up aggravating the issue of colleagues' contact outside work hours.

    A stress check survey among its employees in April 2021, a year after teleworking practices' introduction, found that 22% were deemed as suffering great stress -- over four times the 5% that had fallen in this severe stress level prior to work-at-home practices. Individuals claimed they were being contacted via chat outside work hours.

    The company determined that it would be difficult for workers to demand their bosses and coworkers consider their work hours due to people's general desire to avoid ruining workplace relationships, even if they felt unsatisfied. It thus established the rule to in principle ban contacting others outside working hours. While working overtime past 10 p.m. had been prohibited pre-pandemic, an alert began to appear on computer screens, as mentioned above. The firm also called on all employees to be considerate of colleagues' working hours. Following these efforts, an October 2021 survey found the proportion of individuals judged as having high levels of stress fell by half. Miyauchi said, "By having the company's management present these as organizational rules, we are able to reduce worries employees can't speak up about."

    Overseas, there have been precedents on the right to disconnect. In 2017, France enforced regulations making it mandatory for companies with 50 or more employees to have management-labor discussions for staff to exercise their right to disconnect, including how emails outside working hours are handled. Italy has enacted similar legislation.

    But can the right to disconnect be asserted in Japan, a country where unpaid overtime and taking unfinished work home was the norm until a short time ago?

    Social insurance and labor consultant Hiromi Deguchi, 43, said that before discussing the right to disconnect, the way people work in Japan must change first. Deguchi finds the tendency for individual employees to undertake tasks only they are aware of problematic.

    "At many Japanese companies, there's a tendency for members besides individuals in charge of a job to be unaware of the specific nature of operations as well as how to proceed with tasks. When jobs become specialized in this way, work cannot be done unless the person in charge is there, and bosses and coworkers end up making phone calls and emails to ask questions, even if the person is off or already clocked out," she said.

    Deguchi said that if information is shared in the department by making manuals giving procedural instructions, other employees can smoothly move forward with operations even if the responsible member is absent. She points out, "It is important to detach tasks from individual employees."

    (Japanese original by Yukako Ono, Digital News Center)

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